Sunday, September 23, 2012

Indian Trains; Pursuit of happiness

15:42, 23/9/2012

Howdy, folks!  I’m reporting from my homestay family’s new house in Jaipur, after having spent a week in the state of Uttarakhand learning about NGOs, speaking with rural villagers and jungle nomads, and relaxing for a day in Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world.  Additionally, I experienced not one, but two nights on the famous Indian sleeper trains.  The trains were old and a bit shabby, and had very little privacy.  The bunks are in pods of eight (two stacks of three on one side, and a stack of two across the center aisle.)  The odds of having a good night’s sleep are fairly slim: it is hard to hold fast to your dreams as passengers noisily come and go all through the night, until all remaining hope is at last lost at 5:30 in the morning when young men begin the breakfast parade down the aisles, yelling “Chai, coffee, chai!” is nasal voices.  Needless to say, it’s a blast.  Just like camping, the discomfort is part of the adventure!
In my last post, I promised to write about “academic” musings--  caste and class divides, economics and well-being, and my Independent Study Project.  So, here goes...
For some time now, I’ve wanted to help alleviate extreme hunger and poverty.  My thought is this: in our modern world, with all our capabilities in agriculture, health, medicine, et cetera, there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t have the things they need to survive-- for simplicity, we’ll say food, clean water, shelter, clothes, and basic medicines.  Furthermore, we ought to be able to provide these things without destroying the world’s precious ecosystems.  So it angers me that rich countries like the United States have built systems that allow them to exploit the natural resources of poor countries, ultimately leaving them with damaged environments and no way to improve their position in the global economy (i.e. If they had their own factories to manufacture their raw materials, they could provide jobs for the poor and reduce poverty in the long term; but since the raw materials are taken and processed in other countries, they’re sitting ducks.)  What’s worse, it’s all for the sake of manufacturing an endless supply of material goods that I believe don’t ultimately make us happy.  (This is admittedly a very simplistic explanation, but bear with me.)
I’ve made a habit of blaming the “neo-liberal global economy” for this mess.  But I’ve come to think that there are lots of ways we can change the existing system of producing and trading goods around the world that would cut out many “negative externalities,” to use economic terms.  There are many good things that have resulted from our “globalized” system of trade.  And besides, I don’t think there’s any chance of turning back to a world without international trade (if there ever was such a place.)  So, all we have to do is be clear about what we want from the system and tweak it accordingly with good policies, so that we can maximize human livelihood and well-being.
But there’s a catch: everyone has a different idea of what makes for a “good human livelihood and well-being.”  The conditions that make me happiest differ from the next guy; and when we make policies that value one group’s standards of well-being, we automatically devalue the values of another group.  If, for example, most people value a consistent supply of electricity, and we build more dams and mine more coal and oil to provide it, then we harm the well-being of indigenous peoples who live by the rivers and mountains and in the forests who are displaced in the process.  Unfortunately,one size does not fit all when it comes to happiness. (Some countries, like Norway, have come closer to a “one-size-fits-all” system for societal values.  But Norway, which was one fairly homogenous, has seen an enormous influx of immigrants from eastern Europe, Pakistan, and other places, and it has pressured the Welfare State to make exceptions for people who have different values of what makes happiness.)
If we can’t do perfect, we can certainly do better.  Lots of statistical indicators are used to evaluate different aspects of people’s well-being-- indicators like GDP, infant mortality rate, life expectancy, Body Mass Index, standard of living, you name it.  Some countries, like Bhutan, use a “Happiness Index,” which averages several indicators to evaluate people’s overall happiness in the country.  But ultimately, all of these reach the conundrum which is inherent to social sciences: you can’t quantify human behavior.  
For my independent study project, I’m interested in a certain facet of this problem: food!  Modern farming technologies have enabled India to create enough food to provide for its 1.2 billion people (although distribution is a problem.)  However, these modern systems of food production have tremendous impacts on the natural environment.  I’d like to evaluate how to reduce said impacts.  But I may need to narrow my focus-- agriculture is a huge sector, after all.  I may end up changing directions altogether.  But I’ll keep you posted!  
Here’s a thought to leave you with: what makes you happy?  I’m not just talking stuff, although they are a part of it-- what conditions, what circumstances?  And secondly, what impacts do those things have on nature, and on other people?  Don’t feel guilty of these impacts-- everything has an impact of some sort-- just be aware of what it is.